The entrance to Liluma's Side Door is in fact the side door to Jim Fiala's popular Central West End bistro. It opens directly into what used to be Liluma's back dining room. Since August Fiala and Liluma executive chef Brad Watts have operated this space as a restaurant within a restaurant — a concept not unlike the original Taste by Niche, with small, playful and modestly priced dishes meant to be shared. Liluma's Side Door, Fiala told me upon announcing its arrival, is a place "you don't have to think about" but simply may visit for a bite to eat on your way to or from an evening's other activities.
That's the idea, anyway.
On a recent Saturday evening, I strolled up to the side door to find a handwritten note posted there instructing diners to enter the restaurant through Liluma proper. OK, not a problem — though I couldn't help but observe through the window that every table in the back room was full, and almost every diner was perusing Liluma's menu rather than Liluma's Side Door's.
Liluma's host greeted us with the news that if we wanted a table, we'd have to wait at least an hour. Again, no big deal: I get paid the same whether I'm seated immediately or made to cool my heels at a bar. The rest of you, though? Not so much. Hey, Jimbo, they might be wont to wonder, is it time to rethink that whole "you don't have to think about" concept?
Me? I found someplace else to review that night and tried the Side Door again on a quieter evening. The handwritten note was still there.
This time, though, the host led us to a table in the back room lickety-split. The speediness with which we were seated may have had something to do with the fact that ours was the only table in the room that was occupied.
So we sat. And waited. And waited. And waited.
I got up to look around. The room seats maybe 30. It's brighter than the front room and hallway that compose Liluma, and here the walls are covered to the point of clutter with framed pictures. The tables sport red-checkered tablecloths. On a small table just inside the now useless side door stands a placard welcoming you to Liluma's Side Door. I was beginning to wonder whether I was dreaming the whole thing, like a Matrix-style alternate reality.
The menu (which I could probably recite from memory, so intimately acquainted had I become by the time we were able to order from it) is divided into "Bites" (very small appetizers, $4 each), "Pillows" (ravioli based, $7) and "Snacks" (sized like your typical appetizer and sometimes like a smallish entrée, $10). Most dishes have generic names — "Bacon and Egg," "Fish and Chips" — and include no description, an intentional omission meant to hint at the kitchen's imagination and skill.
If questioned, your server will eliminate the surprise factor. Spoiler alert: So will I, and you don't even have to ask.
The idea behind the fare at Liluma's Side Door is twofold: to present playful takes on familiar American dishes and to prepare those dishes with the French and Italian technique for which Fiala's restaurants (Liluma, the Crossing, Acero) are known. So "Fried Bologna" (a "Bite") presents several cubes of housemade mortadella that have been fried and then drizzled with a balsamic-cream reduction. The sauce is the inspiration here, its astringent note a good foil for the salty, piggy cold cut.
"Bacon and Egg" is one of the "Pillows," and in this case the metaphor is apt: The dish is a single large, pillowy raviolo stuffed with an egg yolk and a blend of Parmesan, ricotta and mascarpone cheeses, with nutmeg. A silky beurre monté studded with pieces of bacon tops the raviolo. Borrowed from the menu at Fiala's Acero, this is a simple, elegant dish, and delicious.
Another "Pillow" is more mysteriously titled: "Ducks in a Lake." What arrives is tasty, though not as intriguing as its name suggests: ravioli stuffed with duck confit blended with mushroom and cheese in a rich, golden broth. The broth is so good (and the ravioli so scant) that you'll want some of Liluma's excellent bread on hand to dunk in it.
The "Surf and Turf" (a "Snack") is one of the cleverer jokes: two sautéed scallops atop...spaghetti squash. The scallops are plump and beautifully browned, and the squash gives their flavor an earthy touch of, well, turf. "Rice and Beans," on the other hand, gives the classic blue-collar combination a fancy makeover: rice and white beans tossed with herbs and microgreens. It would make a nice side to a main dish, but when served solo it doesn't really sing.
Some dishes are exactly what they claim to be: "Shiitake Custard" is a tasty "Bite" of custard topped with sautéed shiitake mushrooms, for instance, served with crostini to spread it on. Another "Bite," the "Squash and Bacon," consists of diced bacon and diced butternut squash tossed together. The two flavors certainly complement each other, but the dish lacks anything to elevate it. The "Fish and Chips" is a battered and fried piece of tilapia served with housemade chips. Though tilapia usually doesn't bring anything to the table in the way of flavor (and when it does, what it brings tastes like mud), the batter is peppery, the fish is moist, and the chips are crisp and flavorful.
Weirdly, the back of Liluma's Side Door's menu includes a very brief wine list: one white and one red, presented as a special value and priced at $15 apiece. I'm no sommelier, but I've ordered wine from a whole lot of wine lists, and the markup on a $15 bottle has got to be pretty small if it's truly a "value." (As in approaching zero.) I asked our server what he thought of the red. He responded with a dismissive shake of the head. We asked to see Liluma's list instead.
I suppose a fellow should appreciate it when his waiter steers him clear of plonk. Yet something about his brusque, wordless dismissal irked me. When I thought about it, I realized that on every visit to Liluma's Side Door I got the sense the staff sees the venture as a hassle, an unfortunate and inferior appendage to the real restaurant.
Fiala has a good idea, and he and Watts are cooking good, fun food that's priced to move. Evidently I'm the only guy in St. Louis who has figured that out, though. Or maybe it's The Matrix after all.